Pros: Surprising level of success given the difficulty
Cons: It’s tough for an anthology to be perfect, and Lovecraftian horror is particularly difficult to write well
Rating: 4 out of 5
Review book courtesy of Penguin Group
Most Lovecraftian tales of the Old Ones only hint at what might happen after the Old Ones return. In Cthulhu’s Reign, 15 authors explore the notion of what it might be like when it actually happens. When R’lyeh rises, when Cthulhu walks the earth, when the shoggoth hunt and kill. When humans find themselves to be mere insects—or less—beneath the notice of their new dark gods.
It’s tough for any anthology to get five stars; since there are so many stories by different authors with different styles, you’re hardly likely to enjoy everything you find. Mostly when I read an antho I hope to find enough enjoyable, well-written stories on the advertised subject to make the reading experience as a whole worthwhile. Even better is the potential to find a few new authors whose work I might enjoy.
In this, Cthulhu’s Reign fares well. The book as a whole didn’t bowl me over and leave me begging for more, but for an antho it’s very solidly good. It’s tough to do Lovecraftian-style horror, and some of these authors actually pull it off rather well. It almost relies on high-concept formats, which can devolve into either silliness or a confusing morass—there’s little of either of those extremes here, thankfully. A few of these stories definitely stuck with me on an emotional level, something that I wasn’t really expecting given how much was stacked against this volume. I did note, however, that the level of editing seemed rather inconsistent in the anthology as a whole; a few of the stories had a distracting level of typos while others were fine.
Some of the stories were interesting but took some time to pull me in, such as Ian Watson’s opening story The Walker in the Cemetery. Its tale of a group of tourist’s attempts to survive despite being hunted and toyed with felt almost too ordinary at first, but it ramped up into something more interesting later on; Jay Lake’s Such Bright and Risen Madness In Our Names, about a last few resisting humans who’ve had to turn their efforts against the Old Ones’ priests rather than the Old Ones themselves, didn’t hold up next to some of the other stories in Cthulhu’s Reign. Ken Asamatsu’s Spherical Trigonometry similarly has some insightful moments, but again the whole didn’t grip me. John R. Fultz’s This Is How the World Ends is a gritty, post-apocalyptic tale that I rather enjoyed, but the very ending felt a bit off somehow, as though it clashed a little with the rest of the piece.
Don Webb’s Sanctuary particularly appealed to me, primarily because it manages to make the largely cerebral and unknowable terrors of the Old Ones into something visceral, personal, and emotional without compromising their great scope and scale. In it, a few small towns still survive simply because their smaller populations make them less noticeable to the Old Ones, and the people within those towns struggle to hold things together as their world falls apart. Darrell Schweitzer’s Ghost Dancing, in which we find out how the Old Ones’ invasion got its start, appealed to me because of its very relatable narrator.
Mike Allen’s Her Acres of Pastoral Playground is one of the better pieces in this volume; it’s a concept piece that manages to work extremely well without becoming too abstract or confusing. A husband and father lives on his farm with his wife and daughter, cut off from the world, but something keeps trying to intrude on their peace and quiet. And what seems like a small intrusion is anything but.
Will Murray’s What Brings the Void explores the topic from a fascinating perspective: that of a psychic (“remote viewer”) assigned to find out what’s going on at a particular location of the Old Ones’ invasion. The depiction of how remote viewers operate is highly engaging and very well-written. My only problem with this one was a little frustration at the ending; I’ll just say that it seemed the protagonist missed something obvious in his assumptions. Gregory Frost’s The Seals of New R’lyeh explores the fact that even in the time of the Old Ones’ ascendance, it’s often still humans that turn out to be their own worst enemies.
Matt Cardin’s The New Pauline Corpus is definitely a concept piece, taking a rather abstract and shifting approach to a new body of theological work. I would have liked the abstraction to be dialed back slightly for a more coherent whole, but it’s still an interesting and largely understandable tale. John Langan’s The Shallows drew me in on a personal level; the main character is highly relatable. However, some of the dribs and drabs of detail about the changes wrought on the world didn’t have enough context for me to grab hold of entirely. Brian Stableford’s The Holocaust of Ecstasy—a bizarre piece about what the Old Ones’ time of ascendance might really look like, is… well, bizarre, to repeat myself. Similarly, I’m not sure if I ever wholly got into Laird Barron’s Vastation, which explores a rather vast and powerful being’s bizarre existence. Sort of. Maybe.
Richard A. Lupoff’s Nothing Personal is another of my favorites in this book. It’s a sci-fi take on the Cthulhu mythos, which sounds a little bizarre, but it’s one of the best depictions in here of just how little we mean to the Old Ones—and how in some ways, that could give us an odd sort of power. Finally, Fred Chappell’s Remnants has one family of survivors trying to rescue another—through a very difficult medium that relies on the communication skills of an autistic child. A handful of types of communication difficulties come into play here, and they’re all presented with remarkable deftness and skill.
Particularly given how hard it can be to find good Old Ones-related fiction, I think Cthulhu’s Reign is worth a read if you’re hungry for the genre.